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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Major inflexibility
May 9, 2011 - 4:45pm

On the continuing theme of "what we're not able to imagine, we're very unlikely to do" --

One of the unspoken truths at Greenback U is that new academic majors come about slowly. Not that it never happens, but it happens fairly rarely, and only after long preparation. The reasons are well understood and, at least subjectively, valid:

  • We've got an established process for proposing and approving new majors, involving committee review, departmental and dean approval, state-level approval, faculty senate approval, and a note from somebody's mother.
  • We want to be quite certain that we know what we're getting into, and why, and who's going to do the heavy lifting.
  • We have, on occasion, had to terminate academic programs. We didn't enjoy that at all. We don't want to have to do it again.
  • Greenback is organized along feudal lines. If any of the dukes or counts strongly object, we probably won't do it.
  • We like slow.

One of the results of this institutional culture is that, four years after our president signed the climate commitment, we still don't have an established academic major for someone who wants to focus on sustainability or any broad aspect of sustainability. Oh, we've got some an environmental studies major, and sustainability-related topics come regularly to the fore, but it wasn't designed around the topic of sustainability, and the list of required courses makes that clear. We've got environmental economics courses, and courses in sustainable business practices, and courses about sustainable development in the global South. We've got a lot of "special topics" courses around aome aspect of sustainability, but they're not fixed parts of the curriculum. And we've got ethics courses that focus on social justice, which is clearly an aspect of sustainability in the broad sense of the word. But no specific academic major(s). In fact, not even a specific academic minor.

What I find most remarkable is that no one on campus finds this remarkable. It's just the way we do things here. In very small steps, over a long period of time. If then.

Now, I was talking to some folks at the polytechnic up the road. They've got academic majors focusing on sustainability. Hell, they've got well over a dozen of them. And Masters' programs, too. And they signed the climate commitment more than a year after Greenback did.

The president of the polytechnic described the management culture of the place as "nimble", and I'd have to say that the term fits.

Nobody at Greenback describes our management style as "nimble". We don't actually use the word "ponderous", but that's kind of what we take for granted. Because we take it for granted, we don't bother to imagine anything else. And what we don't imagine, we're very unlikely to do.


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